"I am one of thousands of women to have suffered – widows, orphans, victims of sexual abuse and rape". Photo: AFP
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“My son was killed... but it strengthened my commitment”

Despite tragedy, two Afghan women explain how they refuse to be cowed by militants from carrying out their work.

When unknown men abducted Parwin Wafa’s son in a bid to stop her teaching girls in Afghanistan, she refused to capitulate. They killed him. Defiant, she continues to promote female education, despite ongoing threats to her life and family.

Fellow Afghan Dr Pighla Dida was also undeterred when militant assailants warned her to close her small gynaecology practice. In retaliation, they maimed her 10-year-old son in a grenade attack. Later they murdered her brother too.

I met the pair at the end of June when they travelled to London on a simple mission to ask the British government for support in their work back home.

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Parwin Wafa is the headteacher of a girls’ school in Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan. She set up the area’s first female education facility in 1982 and has defied the Taliban and other conservative groups ever since in her calling to promote learning among girls.

When the Taliban closed her school, she resorted to secretly teaching pupils inside her home. Their threats escalated, until five years ago, they abducted her 18-year-old son Hamayood.

She explains in a flat, matter-of-fact tone: “For ten months the kidnappers kept my son alive. During that time we used to receive calls threatening us, but I didn’t stop my work.”

Was she ever tempted to capitulate? “No, these men were untrustworthy, I didn’t know they would return my son whatever I did.”

She pauses. “As a result my son was killed and his body was left on deserted land. Later the seasonal floods brought his body to an area where there were some nomadic people living and it was then we received his dead body.” His torso was pierced with 12 bullet wounds.

In the face of tragedy, how did she find the strength to carry on her work, even as renewed threats against other family members arrived?

“I had a commitment,” she says defiantly, but with a shaking voice. “I know Afghanistan is in desperate need of education. I thought, if I give up, will I give a good example to other women involved in the promotion of girls’ education? So that need for women’s education gave me strength.”

Softening, she adds: “Actually it strengthened the commitment that I had in my heart. My father, right from childhood, inspired me to become a teacher and spread the light of education among the girls.

“That is the only way we can bring about great prosperity in my country.” Discussing education, she becomes animated again.

With smiling eyes she explains the tactics she employs to convince parents in her rural, conservative society to send their girls to her school. Her first course of action is to write to the family, countering bogus claims that female education goes against Islam and including lines from the Koran that support her argument.

Failing that, she will travel to the parents’ house. How successful is her approach? She grins: “I haven’t lost a single girl yet”.

Wafa has a beneficent wiliness about her and her aura of easy good will explains why even the sternest conservative patriarchs relent to her.

She recounts how one Imam sent her a pair of shoes to thank her for providing him with water-tight arguments with which to defend his decision to educate his daughter.

Still, her door-to-door approach, and her irresistable personality, raised her profile in the area and gave rise to “anger among people who opposed girls’ education.”

That resentment increased when she stood as a parliamentary candidate in the country’s elections.

“That’s what led to the kidnapping of my son,” she explains, with a deep sigh.

She has not discovered the identity of his murderers, let alone attained justice. “I can’t confirm [who did it]. Afghanistan is full of all types of spoilers and it could be anybody. Talib is just another label – people simply say ‘Oh it’s the Taliban’ when anything bad happens.”

She is far from optimistic about the future. “We’re struggling,” she says, pointing out that education is a secondary concern behind security. “We cannot do anything to improve schools or teaching until the security of the country improves.”

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Dr Pighla Dida has a deep, sonorous voice and a dark sense of humour.

 “The obstructions to my work?”, she cackles bleakly, “Well, bombing, suicide bombs, threats... There are many problems.”

A gynaecologist from a district near Jalalabad, her work – controversial in her rural, traditional society – has also prompted tragedy. Like Wafa, however, she refuses to be cowed by the shattering assaults on her family and the continued threats.

In 2007, a grenade attack on the back garden of her home wounded her ten-year-old son, shredding his legs to ribbons.

Although she refused to give up her  work, her decision to carry on is clearly one that haunts her.

Holding my gaze, she says slowly: “When I see the sadness of my son sometimes – how sad he is, how he suffers – I wish I had quit at the time they warned me to quit.”

Shrugging, she adds: “I feel it is my moral duty to carry on my job. If I quit my profession, then which other doctor can I expect to help the needy people of Aghanistan?”

When victims of sexual abuse and rape used to come to Dida, she admits that at first she refused to help them. It took an incident horrific even by the brutal standards to which she is accustomed that prompted her to furtive action.

A local girl in her early teens who had fallen pregnant outside of marriage was killed by her family. First the parents poisoned their daughter, to weaken her, but also to prompt vomiting and diarrhea, which was designed to convince their neighbours that the death was a natural one. Then they smothered her in the night.

Dida says: “The girl had a large extended family. Her pregnancy was considered to be outside the bounds of honour, and they didn’t know what to do with her.”

She sighs. It is not just girls at risk either – an unplanned pregnancy, often the result of abuse or rape, can endanger every female member of the family.

“After I perform an ultrasound on a girl, often it's the mothers who beg me for help. If you don’t, they say, we’ll all be killed – me, my daughter, all the women in the family.”

Nowadays she offers secret abortions, although she does not advertise the service. “I only do it if they beg me and I can see there will be killing otherwise. I must help those kinds of girls.”

She was warned against her work from the start. “I received many threat letters claiming my work is un-Islamic and warning me to stop helping these people.”

Her refusal led to the attack on her son. She says: “It was evening time when my children were playing outside and a bomb was thrown into my house. There was a big explosion when I came out. My son was covered in blood.

“He was treated by Americans. He had injured legs and now he’s disabled. He’s suffered a lot.

“It took them 7 or 8 months to repair what muscle they could at the top of both legs and then they performed plastic surgery.”

The perpetrators remain unknown. “I can’t point to one particular group. There are many different such groups in Afghanistan... It is inhuman and an act of cruetly.”

Following further threats, Dida’s brother was killed in another targeted bomb attack near her home.

Like Wafa she is concerned about her country’s future as Western forces accelerate their departure.

“We are even more worried now because of the transition of the government that’s happening in Afghanistan. While I’m sitting here, my thoughts and concerns are on my kids and what’s going to happen to them.”

She is in London to ask for help. “I just want to ask your government to build a hospital for me where I can treat these women physically and mentally.”

She refuses to accept she is brave or of unnatural mettle. “I am one of thousands of women to have suffered – widows, orphans, victims of sexual abuse and rape, there is every kind of suffering and such poverty.”

She pauses, then smiles wryly, remembering something. “I met a woman here earlier who told me she doesn’t eat lamb – doesn’t eat meat at all. Well, I was quite surprised!” she exclaims. “In Afghanistan, people slaughter people, they shoot and kill children and don’t they don’t feel a thing. Are here, here people care about animals!”

“Look at the mercy your people have and look at what people do in Afghanistan.”

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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